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Thursday, November 02, 2006

The surveillance state: hammer and anvil

The news, at least NPR, did cover today the news out of Britain that an academic group, the Surveillance Studies Network, has issued a report that warns that Britain is on the verge of slipping into a surveillance society. As far as I can tell, there hasn't been a lot of linkage in the press with similar processes at work here in the US, but I will assume regular readers of this blog are familiar enough with them that I won't go into them right now. Suffice it to say that at least one group is calling for a re-evaluation of the role of technology as it relates to the surveillance powers of the state and other oppressive institutions.
As international data protection and privacy commissioners met in London, Britain's information commissioner Richard Thomas said the report was a "clear signal" the country was becoming a surveillance society.

"It's not just cameras in the street and things like that. It's technology monitoring our movements and activities," he told BBC radio.

Using mobile phones, credit cards, the Internet and even driving now left an "electronic footprint," he said, while organisations increasingly shared information.

Thomas -- whose remit is to promote public access to official information and protect personal data -- insisted the authors of the report, which he commissioned, were not scaremongering by painting a "sinister, Orwellian picture."

Instead, it was the start of a necessary debate about what should be the limits of technology, he added.

"We've got to say: 'Where do we want the lines to be drawn? How much do we want to have surveillance changing the nature of society ... ?" he said, accepting some uses may help in issues like counter-terrorism or serious crime.

"We've got to stand back and see where technology is taking us and make sure we are happy."
No Luddites, the researchers have clearly found ample evidence for the thesis that Britain, already the most surveilled country in the world, teeters on the edge of total information awareness - and this ought to give all of us pause. Importantly, the research cites potential backdoors through which such technologies gain specific and then widespread use, singling out protection of children as one route to loss of civil liberties.
The Children Bill proposes a database of all children from birth until adulthood. It was put forward after the failure of official agencies to share information in the Victoria Climbie child abuse case. School achievements, medical and social services records and parental marital status could be on the database. The health department is also planning a database detailing treatments and social care for all patients.
Heads up, California voters.

So, given the news context of the day, I was struck when following the British story by an article from the US. The Register reported today that AT&T will begin offering a broadband home surveillance package that includes
live video surveillance on a remote computer or even on your cell phone, complete with lighting controls and sensors that detect anything from motion, temperature change or flooding around your home. The service itself is priced at just $9.95 a month and it works with any broadband Internet service, but only with Cingular Wireless phones.
It's important to remember that the capitalist surveillance state brings with it a consumerist participatory current that forms the broad base for the ever stronger hammer blows of state and capitalist surveillance. Spying will soon be ubiquitous not just because the technology empowers the various political and capitalist apparatii of the ruling class, but because it likewise strengthens the paranoid, fearful, reactionary and merely voyeuristic or exhibitionist classes below them, effectively filling in the gaps in the system's network of surveillance.

The researchers of the Surveillance Studies Network may not be Luddites, but we would do well to head their warning and then consider an even broader rejection of technology than they are capable of considering from their universities, think tanks and government positions. Embedded within the heart of surveillance technology is oppression. It can't be extracted, even if occasionally it may be turned against its master. A broad movement for the overturning of capitalism and the state must recognize this fact and clearly set before itself the task of drawing clear lines when it comes to technology.

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